A Modern Day Miracle

1907 Monongah, West Virginia

Immigrants came to America from some of the poorest areas of Europe. They came from the Slavic lands and the poor regions of Italy, Abruzzo, Calabria, and Compania. Many came to work in the coal mines of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. In December 1907 two mine disasters, one in West Virginia and one in Pennsylvania, both fell on St. Nicholas Feast Days--December 6 and December 19. In both places miners were spared who had chosen to observe the day in church, rather than reporting to work. In Monongah, West Virginia, sixty to one hundred miners were thus spared. In Jacob Creek, Pennsylvania, nearly two hundred miners were similarly spared. This saving of lives because of the two St. Nicholas Days is a miracle.

On December 6th, 1907, St. Nicholas Day, the worst mine disaster ever in the history of the United States, took place in Monongah, West Virginia. At least 362 men and boys and probably more than 500 were killed in the blast. It was at two Fairmont Coal Company mines, No. 6 and No. 8. The explosion was so strong that the earth shook as far as eight miles away, shattering buildings and pavement, hurling people and horses to the ground, and knocking streetcars off their rails.

Outside the mine during rescue efforts
Photo: West Virginia State Archives

A train of 14 cars was being winched up to be emptied into railroad hopper cars when a coupling pin broke. The cars, filled with 30 to 40 tons of coal, sped back down the track and crashed into the mine entrance. Clouds of coal dust caught fire and blew up, making the enormous explosion. The blast force killed some immediately, others burned to death, others died of smoke inhalation, and others suffocated in the later firedamp oxygen-deprived air.

There were officially 367 miners in the two mines. However, it was common for miners to take their children—boys 9-12 years old—and other relatives into the mine to help boost their tonnage to increase their paychecks. Children also worked as breaker boys or slate pickers for $1 to $3 a week.

Though the cause of the explosion was not ever fully determined, it was believe to be either an electrical spark or a miner's open flame lamp igniting coal dust or methane. The blast destroyed the mine ventilation system and blew out the timbers supporting the roof, causing it to collapse.

Rescue was limited, as without the ventilation fans, rescuers could only be in the mine for 15 minutes at a time, or else be overcome from the lack of oxygen. One Polish miner was rescued and four Italian miners escaped and later died of injuries. Of the official death toll of 362, 171 were Italian immigrants; 94 were Slavs, including Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Russians, and Ukrainians.

Sixty to one hundred miners were spared because they went to church for St. Nicholas Feast day, instead of reporting to the mine. For miners from Italy and Eastern Europe, St. Nicholas Day was one of the most important religious days on both Orthodox and Catholic church calendars. Monongah had two Catholic churches at that time.

John Sabak family
John Sabak, who did not work the day of the mine disaster because of St. Nicholas Day, with his wife Mary and sons Michael, John and George
Photo: Times West Virginian

The Sabak family had two brothers working in the Fairmont mines: John, 35, had four children, and Michael, who was 23. John did not go to work that day because he'd decided to go to church. His brother Michael went to work and died in the disaster.

"Dec. 6 is St. Nicholas Day,” John's grandson Greg Sabak said. "Over in eastern Europe, traditionally, instead of giving gifts on Christmas, they get the gifts on St. Nicholas Day. What I do, my son lives out in Farmington. What I usually do is give him something on Dec. 6 in remembrance of his great-great uncle [Michael Sabak]. This way he always remembers how he is connected to West Virginia. This way it continues your heritage."

Another miner's daughter, Leanna Meffe, says, "My dad was supposed to be in the mine that day. But it was the feast of St. Nicholas, and he didn't go. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here." Her father lost a leg in another mine accident later.

As so many victims were Italian, Hungarian, or Polish, the Catholic cemetery filled up quickly. The Fairmont Coal Company gave an acre of land for a new cemetery. 135 unidentified victims were buried in a mass grave. The ruins of the two mines were bricked up.

The disaster created 250 widows and 1000 orphans. 2,000 US newspapers promoted a fundraiser to support these survivors. About $150,000 was raised. Andrew Carnegie contributed generously and Fairmont Coal Company gave $17,500. Each widow received $200 and $155 for each orphan younger than 16.


It was many years before there were memorials to the miners lost in the Monongah tragedy. The first was in 1961 and a state historical marker was erected in 1963. The centenary in 2007 brought the major first active remembrance and recognition of the miners whose lives were sacrificed in Monongah, on December 6, 1907. Several Italian towns that lost their emigrated sons have installed memorials.

Because so many Italians—at least 171—lost their lives, the Monongah disaster is thought to be the most serious to have befallen the Italian community. The tragedy had such an impact that "minonga" is used in several idioms. Even today in Calabria, when one wants to indicate a particularly dramatic event, it is customary to say that it is a minonga. Likewise, in San Giovanni in Fiore the expression, "I am not going to minonga," is used to make it clear that the person does not intend to disappear without a trace.

Monongah, bell given by the Italian Molise Region

Families in Europe often never knew what had happened. All they might know is that family members had stopped writing. The people of Molise, who had lost at least eighty-seven, had a bell made to honor the miners who perished in Monongah. Palma Pallante, from Molise, said, "The bell is our symbol. The bell doesn't just ring for church—it's for everything. If somebody died you know because they ring the bell." The bell, made in the 700-year old Marinelli Foundry in Agnone, was brought in 2007 for the 100 year commemoration of the disaster. A bell finally rang for the Monongah miners. It was blessed by Bishop Bransfield and hangs in the town square.

Memorial bell
The bell in front of the town hall
Photos: Bradley Owen, Historical Marker Database
Memorial bells
"St. Nicholas Protect Us All," South Face
Memorial bell
Italian immigrants, North Face

Inscription on the Italian-American Immigrants Memorial Bell:

  • In loving memory of the Sons of Molise who tragically lost their lives in the mining disaster
    Monongah December 6th 2007
    The President Sen. Michele Iorio (on accompanying plaque)
  • Monongah 1907-2007 A tragedy that will never be forgotten (North Face)
  • Italian-American Immigrants from Molise honor their fellow countrymen who died in the collapse of the mine (West Face)
  • May St. Nicholas protect us all (South Face)
  • From the Region of Molise in memory of its 87 lost sons (East Face)

Bishop Bransfield also presided at the centenary Mass in Holy Spirit Catholic Church as part of the commemoration. "We know from Sago [where 12 miners died in an explosion less than two years earlier], this could happen again," Bransfield said. "No matter how much technology has advanced, no matter how smart we think we are . . . This could happen again tomorrow."

In the prayer of the faithful, as the safety of the modern-day coal miner was beseeched, the congregation responded. "Lord, hear our prayer."

San Giovanni in Fiore

The Italian town, from which many of the miners had emigrated, installed a memorial with this inscription in Italian:

Miners memorial
San Giovanni Miners' monument
Photo: Beppeveltri, Wikipedia
Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Per non dimenticare minatori calabresi morti nel West Virginia (USA). Il sacrificio di quegli uomini forti tempri le nuove generazioni. Monongah, 6 dicembre 1907; San Giovanni in Fiore, 6 dicembre 2003
Lest we forget the Calabrian miners dead in West Virginia (USA). The sacrifice of those strong men shall bolster new generations. Monongah, December 6, 1907, San Giovanni in Fiore, December 6, 2003

At least 30 of the miners were from San Giovanni in Fiore, where it is said, "I am not going to minonga," when we want to make it clear that we do not intend to disappear without a trace.

Frosolone, Molise

The monument honors the twenty miners from Frosolone who lost their lives in the disaster and nine more who died in other US mine disasters. Two were in another Monongah disaster in 1916.

Plaque in Frosolone
Photo:Rockysantos, Wikipedia
Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Monongah, Monongah Heroine

The statue of the Heroine of Monongah, was dedicated to the widows and orphans of the miners in 2007. The woman shown is Caterina Davia, the widow of a miner buried in the mine and mother of four children. For 29 years, she went to the mine every day, about a mile from her home, and picked up a sack of coal that she emptied on a mound next to her house. She believed that in this way she'd relieve the weight that weighed on her husband who was buried there in the mine.

Heroine of Monongah, town hall
Photo: Churck & Alice Riecks,  Flickr
Permission pending
Heroine of Monongah at the town hall
Photo: Andre Carrotflower, Wikipedia
Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

The monument, made of Carrara marble, is at the Monongah town hall.

Torella del Sannio, Molise

The monument honors the twelve who died in the disaster from Torella del Sannio, Roccamandolfi, and Bagnoli del Trigno.

Torella del Sannio, Molise, monument
Photo: N.masarone, Wikipedia
Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Duronia, Molise

The monument honors the thirty-six lost from Duronia.
Duronia, Molise, monument
Photo: N.masarone, Wikipedia
Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Mount Calvary Cemetery, Monongah

On December 6, 2007, the centenary of the disaster, the Italian Government placed the black in Mount Calvary Cemetery.

Monument to mine disaster, Monongah cemetery
Photo: Churck & Alice Riecks, Flickr
Permission pending
On December 6, 1907, 361 men, many of whom were Italian, perished in the mines of Monongah, West Virginia. These men were often accompanied by their young sons and other family members who assisted them in the mines.
There were countless others who lost their lives that day and who still remain unknown. Only God knows their faces, their names and the true number who departed this life.
On that fateful day, our town of Monongah pulled together and buried its dead. These men, mostly buried within the arms of this cemetery, left their wives and children in this Country and in lands far away.
May all the souls buried in this hallowed place rest in eternal peace and may they find comfort in our memories.
This monument was erected and dedicated by the initiative of the Italian Government on December 6, 2007.

Historical Marker, Monongah

The State of West Virginia Historical Marker was placed outside the Monongah town hall in 1963.

Monument to mine disaster, Monongah cemetery
Photo: Bradley Owen, Historical Marker Database

Santa Barbara Memorial Nursing Home, Monongah

The nursing home was founded in 1961 by Catholic Priest Everett Francis Briggs, who worked to preserve and spread the memory of the disaster and to help relatives of the missing miners, working to find the names of the missing.
The statue of Saint Barbara in front of the nursing home is dedicated to both the identified victims, who are listed, and those who remain unnamed. She is the patron saint of miners.
St. Barbara, patron saint of miners, in front of the Santa Barbara Memorial Nursing Home
Photo: Bradley Owen, Historical Marker Database


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